Interview with Albert Ellis
Excerpts from an interview with Albert Ellis, who
developed Òrational emotive behavior therapyj.Ó (REBT) in the mid-1950‰Ûªs. The
full interview was by Robert Epstein of Psychology Today.
REBT is based on the principle that most of our emotional
problems are based on irrational beliefs.
RE:.[A]round 1955 É you began to focus on a very
critical idea—namely, that many of our problems are rooted in irrational
beliefs. How did this idea emerge?
AE: When I started to get disillusioned with
psychoanalysis I reread philosophy and was reminded of the constructivist
notion that Epictetus had proposed 2,000 years ago: ÒPeople are disturbed not
by events that happen to them, but by their view of them.Ó
RE: WhatÕs an irrational belief, and how can it
interfere with our normal functioning?
AE: If something is irrational, that means it wonÕt work.
ItÕs usually unrealistic. People are terrified of other people or difficult
projects because they tell themselves that they could fail or be rejected.
Failure can lead to sorrow, regret, frustration and annoyance—all
healthy, negative feelings without which people couldnÕt exist. But then they
add, ÒI absolutely must succeed and must be loved by significant persons, and
if I donÕt, itÕs terrible and IÕm no good.Ó Those are irrational beliefs. As
long as people keep them, theyÕll be terrified of life and will put themselves
down when they get rejected.
AE: In my very first paper on what we now call REBT, I
outlined 11 common irrational beliefs. Later I added 30 or 40 more common
irrational ideas. Beginning in the 1960s, many studies showed that people who
hold what we call irrational beliefs are significantly more disturbed than when
they donÕt hold them, and the more strongly they hold them, the more disturbed
they tend to be.
We started doing outcome studies, and then later Aaron
Beck and Donald Meichenbaum began to do them, and now there are probably 2,000
or more studies on the effectiveness of cognitive behavior therapy, which I
originated. The studies tend to show that when people change their irrational
beliefs to undogmatic flexible preferences, they become less disturbed.
I get people to truly accept themselves unconditionally,
whether or not their therapist or anyone loves them. Self-esteem is the
greatest sickness known to man or woman because itÕs conditional. ÒWhen I do
well and am loved by significant others, then IÕm okay.Ó É .In REBT, we give
clients unconditional acceptance but we also teach them how to give it to
RE: LetÕs get more concrete about this. A man comes in
and says ÒIÕve been feeling horrible lately, and I think itÕs because I may
have been abused as a child.Ó How do you react?
AE: WeÕd assume the worst, usually as a hypothesis. LetÕs
suppose somebody abused you sexually. You still had a choice—though not a
good one—about what to tell yourself about the abuse. Given that youÕre
still upset about the abuse, you probably told yourself two things about it.
First, you said things like: ÒI donÕt like it. I wish to hell it werenÕt so.
How unfair.Ó That made you feel sorry and regretful, which is okay. But you
also in all probability told yourself that the abuse should not exist. You were
disturbed as a child because of both the adversity you experienced and what you
told yourself about that adversity. If adversity alone caused disturbance, then
everybody who experienced such adversity would turn out the same, but we know
they donÕt. So we teach people that they upset themselves then and that theyÕre
still doing it now. We canÕt change the past, so we change how people are
thinking, feeling and behaving today.
RE: Do you think itÕs irrational for people to say ÒI
donÕt want to be in a relationship?Ó
AE: It could be rational or irrational. ItÕs irrational
when itÕs defensive because theyÕre really afraid of rejection. But they could
rationally decide that prolonged relationships take up too much time and effort
and that theyÕd much rather do other kinds of things. But most people are
afraid of rejection.
RE: You appear to be unflappable. Is there anything I
could say that would upset you?
AE: I doubt it. As a matter of fact, as a result of my
philosophy, I wasnÕt even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to
knock him off, but I didnÕt hate him. I hated what he was doing.
RE: Your philosophy is not just something you teach; it
is something you live by.
AE: I hope so.
RE: Any final thoughts?
AE: People donÕt just get upset. They contribute to their
upsetness. They always have the power to think, and to think about their
thinking, and to think about thinking about their thinking, which the goddamn
dolphin, as far as we know, canÕt do. Therefore they have much greater ability
to change themselves than any other animal has, and I hope that REBT teaches
them how to do it.
RE: So thereÕs hope for humanity?
AE: Yes. I think thereÕs definite hope. But there are
three musts that hold us back: ÒI must do well. You must treat me well. And the
world must be easy.Ó And I sometimes think that as long as we keep the second
must, which is socially learned, then some screwballs 100 years from now will
manufacture atomic bombs in their bathtub and maybe annihilate the whole human
race because they demand that the rest of the world must agree with their
dogmas. When we donÕt agree, they may zap us. So weÕd better work hard on
getting rid of that second must—Other people must do what I want them to
do!Ó ItÕs what makes people hostile, nasty, mean and combative, and it leads to
feuds, wars and genocide. WeÕd better do something about that.